McFeely: UC Davis trying to reawaken its football program
The University of California Davis, believe it or not, once was a football school. The Aggies won 20 straight conference championships. They regularly made the national playoffs. They beat an undefeated North Dakota State team in the playoff semifinals and advanced to the national championship game.
Unfortunately, all of that is long forgotten — or unknown — history to most associated with today's UC Davis program. It happened during the school's time in NCAA Division II, which ended when the Aggies moved to Division I Football Championship Subdivision in 2004.
Since the move to FCS, UC Davis football has become a surprising afterthought. Yes, the Aggies won a couple of titles in the old Great West Football Conference — sort of an Island of Misfit Toys for transitioning programs that's long-since disappeared — and they even beat Stanford of the Pac-12 in 2005. Other than that, Division I has not been kind to the Aggies. They've never made the FCS playoffs, their last winning season came in 2010 and they've had one winning season in the Big Sky Conference since joining in 2012.
"It's been a little lean," said second-year head coach Dan Hawkins.
It's getting a little meatier. The Aggies are off to a 3-1 start, with a win over FBS San Jose State and the only loss coming to Stanford. They are ranked 19th in the STATS FCS poll with a game at Northern Colorado next week.
"We're getting better. We have some really good players, really good guys," Hawkins said. "We have several who had Mountain West offers and two had Pac-12 offers. We have some kids who will be future NFL guys."
Hawkins remembers the glory days. He was a fullback behind future NFL quarterback Ken O'Brien on the Aggies team that beat NDSU with a game-ending defensive stand in the 1982 national semifinals, advancing to the Division II title game in McAllen, Texas, where it lost to Southwest Texas State.
When asked what happened to all that tradition, Hawkins said: "I think Davis really just sort of chugged along and really didn't do a whole bunch, especially when it came to facilities. You can't just sit back and say, 'We're Davis.' I mean, it wasn't that long ago when Davis went down to Stanford and won. Now, maybe Stanford was down a little bit. But it's Stanford. But I think people just sort of looked around and said, 'Huh. I'll be darned. Look at us.'"
Hawkins appears to be changing things at Davis, located about 12 miles west of Sacramento in the northern Central Valley. He is a 57-year-old talking machine, gregarious and enthusiastic enough that he served as an ESPN studio host for college football from 2011-16. He has a long resume in college football (and a partial season as a head coach in the Canadian Football League) that includes both success and controversy.
Hawkins put Boise State on the map in the early 2000s, going 53-11 in five seasons. He took over a moribund Colorado program in 2006 and didn't have a winning year before being fired midway through the 2010 season after the Buffaloes blew a 28-point lead in the fourth quarter to Kansas. He was criticized for continuing to pass — his son Cody was the quarterback — instead of running the ball to drain the clock.
Hawkins took over at Davis prior to last season and the improvement, at least offensively, was immediate. The Aggies recorded wins over five Division I teams, equal to the combined total from the three previous seasons, and ended the season as the Big Sky's top-ranked offense.
The Aggies are led by senior All-American receiver Keelan Doss, a Walter Payton Award finalist as a junior. The statistics were off the charts: 115 catches for 1,499 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 10.5 catches and 136 yards per game.
The numbers aren't quite as eye-popping so far this season. Thirty-two catches for 264 yards and a TD.
"He's just a special kid. He's big (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), strong, fast. Humble, hard-working," Hawkins said. "He's not a typical receiver. He's not always saying, 'Throw me the ball.' He only has one touchdown catch this year and he's fine with that. He's like, 'We're winning the games so I don't care.'"
Doss' quarterback is Jake Maier, a junior who threw for 3,669 yards and 26 touchdowns a year ago. He's thrown for 1,198 yards and seven TDs this season.
"He's 6-feet tall, maybe not quite tall enough for the NFL. He'll go and get a cup of coffee with an NFL team and if he's good enough he'll be Drew Brees," Hawkins said. "I always tell him he'll go spend a weekend with the 49ers and if that doesn't work out he'll spend about 10 years in the CFL and win about six Grey Cups. He's a baller."
Whether Davis' defense can stop anybody is an open question — "Can anybody's defense stop anybody in college football these days?" Hawkins asks. "I'd hate to be a defensive coordinator." — as is how the Aggies will fare against the Big Sky's top teams. They have a three-week stretch in October when they play Montana, Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington.
"All I know is we're 3-1 right now and all our kids can talk about is how much better we should be playing," Hawkins said. "That's a good sign. In a short period of time we've really flipped the way guys are thinking about things. It's fun."